Dumbo. Dir. Tim Burton. Walt Disney Studios. 2019.

Magic. Mayhem. Friendship. Freedom.

Come on down to Medici’s circus, where the newest attraction is an adorable baby elephant with ears too big to handle. Watch him soar above and follow his heart as he dreams of being reunited with his mother, so tragically torn apart! Follow him to Vandevere’s circus, where he is a showstopper but remains separated from his mother. Cherish his friendship with the Farrier children, as they, with the rest of Medici’s crew, help him and his mother escape the cruel circus and reunite.

As Disney brings to life everyone’s favourite elephant with a live-action recreation of the classic animated Dumbo (1941), there is a large focus on animal captivity, condemned through the separation of Dumbo from his mother, and the use of the animals to generate profit at the circus.

Dumbo is a fantasy, children’s film, which combines those elements to create an adventure story of the elephant’s escape from the circus, with the help of the children and the magical ability to fly. Burton combines live-action with CGI to create the animals in a hyper realistic manner, the combination demonstrating the harmony and friendship between humans and animals, the real and surreal, empathy vs cruelty. The semi-anthropomorphic, magical elephant brings sentiment and emotion to the perception of animals, while introducing the ethical concerns regarding captivity to a film for children. The lack of real animals used is a means of condemning the use and abuse of animals for a spectacle. The sadness displayed by Dumbo throughout the film allows the audience to sympathise with him and connect on an emotional level, gaining a deeper understanding of animals and their capacity for feeling. It is a commentary on capitalism, exploiting living beings for profit, though the irony of Disney criticising the effects of that system cannot be lost on us.

The tragic truth is that captive elephants have significantly lower life spans than wild elephants, and die before the age of 40. This is from the various health problems they suffer due to long hours standing on hard surfaces and lack of care: tuberculosis, arthritis, foot abscesses. These animals are used to generate an abundance of profit, yet left in the dirt when it comes to being taken care of appropriately.

Advertising poster of Jumbo for Barnum’s circus.

Jumbo, the star elephant in PT Barnum’s ‘Greatest Show.’ He was advertised as the largest elephant in the world, became a showstopper, generated huge amounts of profit for the men. Yet, he died a premature death when hit by a train in 1885, trying to save a dwarf elephant name Tom Thumb as they were both being loaded into a boxcar. Tom survived with some broken bones. Their boxcar was in a very careless place where the unscheduled train was able to drive into them. There was no safety measure taken for the elephants. The animals never had any value except as means of revenue, which the circus failed to protect. Jumbo, at the young age of 4, was taken from Africa by a group of hunters and sold to the London zoo after they killed his mother. Sound familiar?

The very fact that Jumbo tried to save another elephant by nudging him away from the tracks demonstrates the depth of feeling of these animals, caring so much to save one another, while the human capitalists watch and exploit them for their own benefit.
That empathy of the animal vs the cruelty of the human makes up a large portion of the dynamic in Dumbo. The film quickly establishes the African elephant, Mrs Jumbo, as a spectacle bought to draw attention and bring in more money. The birth of Dumbo is further capitalised on, and treated very harshly by the sadistic caretaker, Rufus. While this film highlights the cruelty of people like Rufus and Vandevere (initially Medici too), it also allows a form of karma for them, where the animals fight back in their own small ways until ultimately becoming free.

Rufus horribly mistreats Mrs Jumbo, handling her roughly, hurting her, provoking her by frightening Dumbo, in reaction to which she is aggressive to defend her baby. As soon as Dumbo was born, he shouted in his hear to scare him. Of course, Mrs Jumbo, rightfully, became agitated and threw Rufus into the pool of water. As Dumbo whines in fear, Mrs Jumbo roars and swings Rufus by his leg, illustrating the maternal instinct to protect her child. There is clear dichotomy between the humanity of animals and the complete lack thereof from the humans. The rapid cuts between the shots are indicators of the intense feelings of the animals, and the perceived threat of Rufus. This is only a small act of defiance in comparison to later in the film when Rufus is killed as a consequence of his own agitations. The CGI elephants have more solidity and dimension than the live-action, ‘real’ character of Rufus, who is only cruel. He is an exception to the circus managers, as he is not profiting economically like Vandevere and Medici, but genuinely derives pleasure from hurting the animals. For a caretaker who is always working with them, he evidently hates animals. That hostility is what leads to his death: he is so keen to hurt Mrs Jumbo that he strikes at her and Dumbo, causing her to destroy the circus tent which everyone must abandon for their safety. While they are fearing for their lives, Rufus hides under the seats, grinning as he watches the destruction he caused to unfold. The cut from his grin to the close-up of his shocked face as he realises he is done for, brings the sense of karma that was hinted from the previous scene with the water. There is a parallel with these scenes in Mrs Jumbo getting her payback against Rufus for hurting her son. His amusement quickly switches to horror in both scenes, only amplified in the latter as he finds he will die from the chaos he began. He tried to control the animals through violence but died from an act of animal agency.

There would be a feeling of justice served if it wasn’t for animals suffering consequences for the actions of humans. Because Rufus died in that havoc, Mrs Jumbo is taken away from the circus and separated from her son, deemed too dangerous and not fulfilling the worth of what she cost Medici. There is no thought for the suffering the mother and son face upon being separated, only Medici wanting a refund, as to him, the animals are merely inventory. At this melancholic separation, the film adopts the Adventure genre, setting up the magical protagonist to discover his ability, and, with the help of his human friends and that fantastical element, find his way back to his mother. While embarking on this quest, Dumbo and the children teach the audience of the tragedy of captivity, and the separation of animals as similar to that of human parents from their children. The most touching and heart-breaking moment is the night before Mrs Jumbo is taken away, and Dumbo goes to her boxcar to see his locked away mother. She is evidently very weary in the close-up on her face, meanwhile Dumbo looks confused, not quite understanding why his mother is locked away. Using Foley to add in the whimpering throughout, combined with CGI animating Dumbo’s facial expressions, the film brings to life Dumbo and the animals on the same level as the actors conveying their emotions. It’s realistic expression in human terms, but because they are animals and don’t express their emotions in the same animated manner as humans, this attempt to be realistic can be somewhat surreal. Yet, the immersion and sympathy is garnered through that anthropomorphism of the animals. Particularly in the longing between mother and son when they are distanced by the cage, only able to make contact where Mrs Jumbo’s trunk fits through the bars. The dark lighting, with only moonlight illuminating the animals, reflects the dark moment for the elephants, knowing Mrs Jumbo will be taken away soon. Danny Elfman’s compositions provide the tone for the scenes: slow and emotional for sad scenes, upbeat and fast-paced for hopeful scenes. That non-diegetic music represents Dumbo’s sentiments, stressing his ability to feel, as an animal, like humans can. The film presents animals as far more than mere commodities for human profit.

In the place of his mother, Colette, Holt, Medici’s crew, and the Farrier children took in Dumbo and encouraged him to fly with the hope of seeing Mrs Jumbo again. There is a stark contrast between those humans who sympathise with Dumbo and wholeheartedly want him to reunite with his mother, and the capitalists – Medici, Vandevere, Rufus – who only view him as a disposable performer for the circus. Those who sympathise see themselves in Dumbo, breaking down the boundary between human and animal: the exploited employees losing their jobs, the motherless children, the grieving father,  the performer girlfriend. They are all grieving a loss of some sort or being exploited under the capitalist system; it’s simply mirrored in the figure of Dumbo, the animal reflecting the human state.
Dumbo is placed in the centre of the shots, as the centre of their connection to him and one another. Their plan to help him bonds them closer and they feel sympathy for each other as well as him. From that bond of compassion forms a plan to help free Mrs Jumbo and take her and Dumbo back to Africa where they can be free in their natural environment. The still images show the moments of planning with the moments of goodbye when the plan succeeded. The close-ups of Dumbo show his emotional connection to the kind humans who helped him, and his joy at returning to a natural, free landscape, contrary to the despair in the former scenes.

The karmic satisfaction again comes at the end of the film and adventure when Vandevere’s ‘Dreamland’ burns down, with the freedom of all the animals held captive and the turning point to stop using animals in circuses. Medici even changes his tune and supports Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo in their freedom. That switch from a cold capitalist, only caring about his circus revenue, to a sympathetic man who cares about his crew and the animals, is a reformative moment symbolising hope. The burning of the circus represents the burning of the shackles on the animals and their exploitation, the lack of ‘D’ in ‘Dreamland’ signifying the end. The illusion of a dream has been destroyed.

This brings the Adventure genre to a bittersweet close, as the elephant hero has reached his goal, reunited with his mother, and leaving the children behind, will be taken where he truly belongs, happy with the other elephants.

The exploitation never truly ends though, does it? While the use of animals in circuses eventually stops, in their place are humans who must contort themselves in order to fill those roles. In saving face by releasing all the animals, the circuses paint the image of removing exploitation and treating all fairly. But we can see the replacement of those animals with the humans who remain exploited for the sake of a good show. Multiple people join together to form the shape of a horse to avoid the use of a real horse. The same way animals have been used throughout, these human performers continue to be used and treated as pure spectacle.

While the film centres around one animal, who represents the many animals held in captivity, he also embodies the many humans who are victims of exploitation under capitalism. Just as he was forced to perform to generate profit for the circus managers, the human crew are turned into display pieces to attract curious, paying audiences. Though Disney ties the film with a ‘happy end,’ removing the dynamic of animals as the ‘exploited’ and humans as the ‘exploiter,’ the system of capitalism still thrives and there are plenty of animals and humans still suffering and trapped in their economic conditions, both the same in helplessness. For as long as that system remains in place, the animals will never truly be free, nor will workers.

– LCA, ‘Wild vs. Captive Animals,’ LCA, [accessed 10th January 2022]  https://www.lcanimal.org/index.php/campaigns/elephants/wild-vs-captive
– Hintz, Charlie, ‘Jumbo The Elephant: The Life And Afterlife Of The Largest Animal In The World,’ Cult of Weird, [accessed 14th January 2022] https://www.cultofweird.com/sideshow/jumbo-elephant-death/

Further Reading:
– G Iossa, CD Soulsbury, S Harris, ‘Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life?’ Animal Welfare, (2009)
– Brian McIlroy, The Big Top on Screen: Towards a Genealogy of Circus Cinema, (2019)
– Peta Tait, Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
– BBC One, ‘Attenborough and the Giant Elephant,’ (2017)
– Adrian Pennington, ‘Behind The Scenes: Dumbo,’ IBC365, (2019) https://www.ibc.org/trends/behind-the-scenes-dumbo/3688.article